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How the Lightning Respond to Spate of Injuries

February 12, 2020, 8:52 AM ET [7 Comments]
Sam Hitchcock
Tampa Bay Lightning Blogger • RSSArchiveCONTACT
Having perspective is healthy. Watching Tampa Bay play back-to-back games against Columbus and Pittsburgh, it was striking how both opponents were ravaged by injuries. One of the healthiest teams in the NHL, the Lightning were on the other end of the spectrum. But on Tuesday night, the Bolts may have caught the injury bug from Pittsburgh. Going into the night, they were missing Ryan McDonagh, Steven Stamkos, and Jan Rutta, and they finished the night without Anthony Cirelli and Nikita Kucherov. The Lightning escaped Pittsburgh with a 2-1 overtime win, but they’ll have to recalibrate their lineup in interesting ways heading into Thursday’s game against Edmonton. I discuss two interesting considerations.

Who will Point play with?
Tyler Johnson replaced Kucherov on the Point and Ondrej Palat line last night, and despite having played together in the past (in 2017-18), there were no offensive sparks from their reunion. At 5v5, the triumvirate surrendered 5 shots on goals while registering one. The best opportunity they generated was in the third period when Palat lofted an area pass for Johnson, which Johnson ran under, smacking a hard shot on Matt Murray. In 2017-18, the Johnson-Point-Palat line had an expected goals percentage of 61.84 and potted 15 goals while surrendering four. They had a +23 plus-minus in high-danger chances. Maybe it’s that Johnson is at a different point in his career, or that the Bolts were facing an elite opponent last night, but the line’s lack of shooting made them seem worryingly benign. One example stood out in particular.

With 4.55 left in the third period, Johnson zipped a pass to Point to start the transition out of their zone. Point did what he does best: He raced the puck through the neutral zone, attracted attention as he carried the puck toward the middle, and then slipped the puck to Palat on the left wing. It was a two-on-three when Palat received the puck, but Palat had Justin Schultz standing still. Palat could take a few steps up and shoot the puck from above the circle, pass the puck to Point cutting toward the net, or look toward the weak side.

Palat chose to hurl the puck to Mikhail Sergachev as the trailer on the weak side, but it wasn’t a great pass and Sergachev got pushed to the area beneath the goal line. Sergachev proceeded to tap the puck to Point, who moved behind the goal line for support, and then Point slid the puck toward Kevin Shattenkirk at the point. Shattenkirk missed the pass, after which he had to commit a penalty on Dominik Simon to prevent the play from turning into a breakaway. The Lightning accelerated into the zone and came away with nothing except a two-minute penalty kill.

There is still speed and skill in this new putative first line, but I think its best mode of success is to simplify. Hammer the puck at the net and retrieve. Johnson is likely the most shot-happy of the three forwards, but I doubt this line will be effective if Palat and Point are constantly looking to pass and Johnson is the only one shooting. There needs to be a balance; otherwise Alex Killorn should get a look in lieu of Palat.

Recalibrated PP
The Lightning finally scored on the power play, but without Stamkos and Kucherov at the circles, the first unit is going to look different. This is why the Lightning should roll out two defensemen on the first unit, with Sergachev at the point and Victor Hedman on the left circle.

The Bolts can station Point on the right side where Kucherov normally is and have Johnson or Killorn as the bumper. If the Lightning go with four forwards and have Hedman stewarding the power play from the top, there just isn’t enough shooting for the first unit of the PP to stay potent. But if the Lightning have Sergachev and Hedman cranking shots, and Point and Co. are busy hustling for shots and trying to create off the rebounds, the first unit stays very dangerous.

Losing three of your best forwards and one of your best defensemen is clearly bad, but the timeline for the injuries is murky. One positive materializing is Cooper’s increased faith in Mitchell Stephens, and his line in general, which he seems loath to break up. If the Lightning can burnish the depth players and imbue them with more confidence, maybe this will be a needed respite for the core before the postseason.
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